The Scottish-Canadian Tradition:
A shared Catholic Heritage
We have here … a considerable number of your good people of the High Lands,
speaking only the Gaelic and consequently deprived of almost all of the succours
and consolations of our Holy Religion.
They have several times appealed to me for a priest of their own nation, and my
heart bleeds in witnessing their great distress without any means within my reach
to gratify their just desire.
The Bishop of London, Canada West,
5 January 1857
The warmth of the relationship between Scotland and Canada is well known. Centuries of immigration have allowed the people of Auld Scotia to settle in Nova Scotia and beyond. They brought with them their language, culture, religion and customs. Across Canada one can find the towns of Inverness, Lismore, St Andrews and Iona, amongst others; and these towns borrow not just their names from Scotland, but the very essence of being Scottish. The traditions of Scotland and Canada, the customs and cultures overlap in many ways. Their shared Catholic heritage extends over 232 years, from the arrival of the first organised group of Highland Catholic immigrants in Nova Scotia, at the end of June 1772, including Father James MacDonald of the Highland Vicariate.
This compilation of sources from the Scottish Catholic Archives, begins with material from the Blairs Letters Collection, which includes correspondence from Father James MacDonald dating from 1776. He details the state of the Scottish emigrants who had crossed the Atlantic as a result of the Laird of Glenaladale’s sponsorship, with the intention of gaining a better life, but the hardships which they suffered in Nova Scotia in the first few years appear to have been worse than they could have imagined. Father MacDonald writes:
“The plan that Glen and his brother had in bringing a number of settlers to this place is like to misgive for several of them went off the island the very first year … This unlucky war between England and the Americas hurts this place very much and tho’ there was no war at all, seldom a year passes but what the island is hurled by some mischief or other, this year several inhabitants were obliged to leave the place for want of provision as the mice destroyed all their corn and their potatoes.”
The Archives of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles also provide a vivid picture of the immigrant Scots Catholics in Canada. As more Scots arrived, the need for a priest who spoke their own language became apparent.
A highly emotive plea is found in the Preshome Letter Collection, in a letter to Bishop Kyle of the Northern Vicariate, from The Bishop of London, Canada West, dated 5th January 1857. He writes:
“We have here … a considerable number of your good people of the High Lands, speaking only the Gaelic and consequently deprived of almost all the succours and consolations of our Holy Religion.
They have several times appealed to me for a priest of their own nation, and my heart bleeds in witnessing their great distress without any means within my reach to gratify their just desire.”
The desire and need for a Gaelic-speaking priest showed the immigrants’ desire to maintain their link with Scotland, and in spite of the severity of the hardships which they suffered, in 1790 the families were able to collect 33 Halifax pounds for the support and provision of Father Angus MacEachern. Father MacEachern, who was held in high regard, ministered to over 1000 Catholics in Nova Scotia, drawn from the Scots; the French; the Irish; and Mi’Kmaq. The links between the new immigrants and their homeland were further strengthened by movement back and forth between Scotland and Canada, bringing news, provisions, and wives for the young settlers.
Early immigrants laboured under the same penal oppression in their new homes as they had done in Scotland. Despite this, individuals such as Father MacEachern endeavoured to ensure their warm reception, by making it a point of duty to meet each vessel that came to Pictou from the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland.
Many of the Scots immigrants flourished during the ensuing decades, with Scots Highland emigration reaching all corners of the country. Letters preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives show the developing lives of the Scots in the new country, with their increased stability and prosperity. A parish priest comments:
“Many of the old people in the four parishes comprised in that County are unable to speak English, and I deem it a duty to provide them with Gaelic-speaking pastors whensoever I can. Those missions are, thanks be to God, very prosperous spiritually and temporally and are well supplied with all the requisites of religion. My Scotch [sic] people, numbering about eight thousand are excellent Catholics. They are to me a great consolation and they highly esteem their Clergy and supply them with abundant means of respectable support.”
One Scots priest who made a significant contribution in Canada was Father Alexander MacDonell who was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Upper Canada in 1819, and later Bishop thereof with his see at Kingston. He induced a considerable immigration to the province, leaving, at his death, 48 churches and 30 priests in the Diocese. He died in 1840 and was buried in the Convent Chapel of St Margaret’s, Edinburgh now the Pastoral Centre of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh. Correspondence included here details the arrangements made for returning his body to Kingston for interment in the cathedral there. The regard in which he was held by the Scots at home is indicated in the comments made by the Mother Superior in her letters to Bishop Horan, dated 1861.
“There is no doubt of y[ou]r claims to the sainted remains of the late Bishop of Canada, nor that we can refuse to deliver them into such safe keeping; we hope they will be as precious to those who enjoy them in Canada as hitherto they have been valued by us.”
However, such prosperity was not enjoyed by all. The Archives of the Diocese of Galloway relate the story of A S Mackay who wrote assiduously to his parish priest, Father William Turner during 1887. The unfortunate circumstances which prevailed upon him in Toronto and his family at home in Dumfries are illustrated by his concern over the need by his wife to pawn the children’s clothes. Father Turner it would seem, offered as much assistance as he could to the family in Scotland until Mackay was able to provide passage for his family to Canada.
The passage of over 100 years has not weakened the strength of the many bonds between our two countries and indeed the 232 year old relationship has turned full circle with the return of clergy from Canada to the Highlands. Father Vernon Boutillier served in the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles during the 1990s, having come from Antigonish. He remains a well kent figure in the Highlands, thus exemplifying the strong relationship between the Dioceses of Antigonish, and Argyll and the Isles and reinforcing our shared Catholic heritage.
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